How to start an argument on social media: Just ask, “What is the Ultimate Hunting Vehicle? “It has to be a Jeep!” “No, it could never be a Jeep!” You get the idea… Before you take sides, allow me to set up the parameters. Then follow the story, adding your comments as we go. This isn’t a one-and-done story. I found myself stuck for $6000 in 2016, paying for repairs to my prior Jeep. And there were plenty before that. A couple of years earlier I was stuck while out of state, broken down. It’s a long brutal history of dreams and nightmares. The dreams were of the Ultimate Hunting Vehicle (UHV). The nightmares were my reality. That’s all changing now, and I hope you’ll follow the story here, developing your own ideas and aspirations to start your personal UHV project.
If we’re going to talk about building the Ultimate Hunting Vehicle, we’re going to have to start with what kind of platform to use. But before we can know that, we have to focus in on the “Ultimate Hunting” part of this. I’m guessing that for virtually everyone reading this, “Ultimate Hunting” isn’t in your back yard. That means you’re going to have go someplace else to experience it. So as much as I love Polaris toys, they don’t qualify. Wherever we’re going, we need a single vehicle to get us there and back again. Otherwise, we’d be building the Ultimate Trailered Hunting Vehicle. And then you’d have to get a trailer, insure it, have a tow vehicle… It’s complicated.
Clearly, we’ll need a vehicle that is capable both on road and off. I’m assuming you’re not hunting urban parasites here, but we’ll get back to that in a minute. Pickups are awesome, but their size limits them in some of the places you find Ultimate Hunting. Think tight trails in the Rocky Mountains. So full size trucks are out.
That still leaves a lot of smaller 4×4 SUVs and pickups, right? I’ve owned a Toyota 4 Runner and a couple of Jeeps. I’ll readily admit that the 4 Runner is an outstanding vehicle, but when up in the high country you probably find Jeep Wranglers at least ten to one over the Toyotas. But, but, but…!! You could care less about the Rockies? Ultimate Hunting is an over the top Texas hog hunt for you? I get it, I’m in, I have the addiction, too! The point is, that if you’re going to build the Ultimate Hunting Vehicle it needs to be able to go pretty close to anywhere and Jeep Wranglers are the most popular thing on wheels for that purpose. Which leads us to ask, “Why?”
This is where the debating really ends. The Jeep Wrangler is to automobiles what the AR-15 is to the gun world. Both are the most customizable, versatile, purpose configurable options in their respective genres. Consider with me the parts list for Jeep Wranglers. I’ve been on the ExtremeTerrain.com mailing list forever. Well, for a long time, but not really forever. They sell parts for the various Wrangler iterations (YJ 1986-1995, TJ 1997-2006, JK 2007-1017 and I know the next generation JL model parts are coming). Currently there are 16,392 unique SKUs, not including the child SKUs for fitment, etc.! Makes me wonder how many AR-15 related SKUs Brownells has, but I digress. Ultimately, both ARs and Wranglers amount to endless rabbit holes where you can chase changing interests, requirements and where owner preferences can reign supreme.
That’s how we arrived at the Jeep Wrangler as the ultimate hunting vehicle. But then which one? A four door JKU gives the best road manners and more space so that’s an easy call. The 2012 and following years have a superior engine, so we narrow it down further. Since this project is all about building the all around Ultimate Hunting Vehicle we chose a Rubicon, the top of the Jeep Wrangler line. You’re not just getting a trim package with the Rubicon.
The Rubicon has heavier duty larger diameter axel shafts, higher spline count, locking differentials. Mine has the added benefit of a 4.10 gear axel ratio paired with 4:1 transfer case yielding slower creep and better control off road for when we’re heading deep into the back country. It crawls at roughly half the speed of a standard Wrangler and has more low end torque. Rubicons come with electronic sway bar disconnect which can give you better traction and ride off road, and rocker protection. Jeep sites can spend years on those topics, but we must move on.
Remember, it’s about getting there and then getting home again! In my prior Wrangler, I blew out a front differential downshifting while going down a moderate 4×4 road. To me, this stuff matters. All these Rubicon features can be added, and quite possibly with superior parts from the Extreme Terrain catalog, but narrowing the list to a 2012-2017 Rubicon gave me a jump start.
Buying a new jeep would be great, of course, but buying used would leave a budget to build with. And buying used would get me more Wrangler to enjoy before the build starts. Ideally, you could pick up a used mall crawler already built up some. I found a reasonable deal on a 2012 Rubicon JKU with 70,000 miles on it a couple of states away, so I bought it never having driven it or looked at it in person. If that sounds weird, consider that I bought my house off an online listing, never having even driven past it.
Of course there are unknowns in buying that way, but buying used is an excise in risk management. My jeep was already lifted and running 35 inch tires. That would keep me going until I could upgrade, not to mention that it looks great, too! Yes, looks matter, and we’ll make them even better in time. The lift consisted of spacers, springs and shocks and was okay, but not great. The ride quality and control both suffered. It had aftermarket heated leather seats and had been well maintained. It had seen some good times off-roading and I discovered the steering stabilizer was bashed and ready for the trash. All in all, not bad, a good looking highly functional vehicle.
What would it take for me to build the Ultimate Hunting Vehicle? Parts and people. Through an unforeseen set of contacts I ended up talking with Extreme Terrain. They love what SHWAT™ is all about and immediately recognized the potential of building the UHV. To make the project possible, we focused clearly on what the UHV would be, and what it would not be. It’s not the ultimate desert racer. It’s not the ultimate rock crawler. Every decision in the parts selection would have to serve the hunting project. Extreme Terrain proved incredibly helpful in defining and supplying the parts. Almost all of Part One of this build, Getting the Foundation Right, required professional work. I’m only so-so on the wrenching side of things, and this would be a sizable undertaking. There’s only one place that works on my jeeps, Bach Crawlers in Palmer Lake, Colorado. They’ve done more than 3000 lifts in ten years, have never oversold me on repairs, never given me bad advice. And while they discounted the labor for this project, I was still out a stack of bills. That’s why I bought used and highly recommend it. The result will be one amazing custom jeep, the Ultimate Hunting Vehicle
Part One – Getting the Foundation Right
Lift a JKU Wrangler 3” and you’re asking for issues. That’s not a negative, it’s just that most lifts jobs don’t account for the changes to the drive train and steering geometry. My jeep was that way when I got it. If you’re going to build the Ultimate Hunting Vehicle, you can’t have those issues. “Ultimate” demands top tier parts and build. That still leaves room for preferences, though. Case in point: I only use Mobile 1 synthetic motor oil. Along with some other brands, it is a top tier product. You might prefer Amsoil, Redline, Royal Purple, or other premium synthetic oils. The easiest thing about Part One was replacing the air filter. Factory is, well, meh. I’ve had K&N filters but don’t like messing with the cleaning and oiling. The AFE Magnum FLOW Pro DRY S OE Replacement Air Filter hit the sweet spot for me. It’s a drop in factory replacement that can outflow the factory filter by up to forty-five percent. It might net a couple more horsepower, and your off idle throttle response is crisper, smoother. It can wind up faster, just like using 2 straws to drink a milkshake finishes it faster. It’s reusable, but no oiling mess, and $59. If you’re going to use an air filter, why not use a great one? If that’s not motivation enough, consider this. Google tells me the Mopar OEM air filter for my Wrangler is $31. The AFE is a better filter and will outlast more than the Mopar. In the long run the better filter is the cheaper filter.
One common result of the typical jeep lift, my factory front drive shaft had issues. I had the same issues with my prior JKU, so this is something you’ll want to look into if you have a lifted Wrangler.
Whenever you lift you’re creating steeper angles on drive shaft rezeppa joint. That joint has a rubber boot to protect ball bearings in it. The increased angle created by lifting your jeep will often create failure in the rubber boot. As soon as the boot gets a tear or hole, grease exits, bearings go and it’s done. Another issue that the steeper angle can cause is contact with your exhaust. Aftermarket shafts have a smaller (albeit stronger) diameter tube, so it buys you an inch of travel without hitting the exhaust pipe.
The solution? A Yukon Gear Heavy Duty Front Driveshaft. It’s stronger than the factory one, and stronger is better and confidence inspiring. It is a double carden CV drive shaft, double jointed, so it can handle the angles better than a single joint. It can be installed with some basic tools and little bit of time. Many of you could readily install this, but I left it to Bach Crawlers. At $513 it’s not a bad deal when you put the word “ultimate” in front of your hunting vehicle.
You can’t have the Ultimate Hunting Vehicle without lifting the jeep. More clearance means more options for navigating the back country without getting hung up or breaking your jeep. Same for navigating bar ditches and other challenges of flat land fields far from the Rockies. As I mentioned, the lift that came on my jeep really didn’t quality for the “Ultimate” label, not for hunting, not for rock crawling, not for desert racing. Maybe for mall crawling. Lift preferences could be compared to the motor oil preferences we touched on above. Between Bach Crawlers and Extreme Terrain we went back and forth over which kit would be ideal for our purpose here.
Initially we were going to use a bolt on Rock Krawler mid arm kit, but with a nod to “ultimate” we decided to go all in with a long arm kit. We chose the Teraflex 3 inch Elite LCG Long Arm Lift Kit without shocks. This was the biggest most complex and expensive upgrade to get the foundation right. We would literally cut off the factory control arm mounts from the frame of the jeep. The control arms connect your axels to your Jeep’s frame. Getting this right would be a big job. The Terraflex brackets that connect the control arms to the jeep frame go over same space as the factory brackets. This requires a lot more grinding time than some other brands of kits. I think it took two full days of grinding and numerous high end grinding disks. It’s not a job for most home garage mechanics, though some of you might pull it off. The Teraflex kit is $2809 and labor costs more than the bolt on kits we’d initially planned to use. Why would we go this route?
Imagine a piece of paper folded ninety degrees and sitting on a table like a tent. The top crease represents your jeep frame, the edges of the paper sitting on the table represent your axels. That’s the factory set up. Now, lift your paper tent by pulling up on the crease. Your “axels” will pull in towards each other, shortening the wheelbase. This adversely impacts steering and suspension and accounts for many issues on lifted jeeps compromising ride quality, drivability (control) and other issues. A long arm kit allows you to push those axels back out to where they were designed to be, delivering better safety and control.
What you’re after is “linear control.” You want your axels to drop straight down, just like they were designed to do. If your suspension is moving in different directions than it is supposed to, you’ll get less than desirable outcomes. The long arm gives you predictability, keeping the axel moving in proper planes and arcs. Beyond predictability, the long arm kit delivers smoother ride quality because your arms are not at such an angle anymore. And the Terraflex control arms in this kit are beefy, a huge improvement over the factory ones!
One of the best things about these long arms is that they are adjustable. Bach Crawlers moved my front axel forward of the factory position by an inch or so giving better tire clearance, a better approach angle, better looks and arguably still better ride quality. And WOW is my ride quality better! This is a good place to pause and talk about that.
One of the requirements of the Ultimate Hunting Vehicle is that it has to get you where you’re going and you shouldn’t hate the ride. Clearly, I’m a jeep guy and you’d hope I could feel and appreciate the difference this long arm kit makes. But my son, yet to be a licensed driver, can tell the difference. My wife, a skeptic, can tell the difference. My daughter who prefers smaller cars appreciates the difference. My mom, who doesn’t move as fast as she once did and needs a step stool to get in easily, cheerfully described the ride as “smoother.” How great is that? I cannot overstate how much better the handling of my jeep is now. Washboard dirt roads are far more pleasant to drive. Highway control, predictability and manners are dramatically better. The long arms deliver better off road articulation, netting a better chance of getting to your final destination and back. When I drive, it seems that I’m able to control and maneuver better and that should mean improved safety. All this is enhanced by the ability to adjust pinon and caster as well, which not only impacts handling but tire wear.
The Terraflex kit was suggested by Extreme Terrain. Going this route pushed my own cash investment up significantly due to the substantial amount of shop labor required to install it. But paired with the FOX 2.0 Performance Series IFP Front Shock for 1.5-3.5 Inch Lift shocks we added I can say the result is amazing. At $139 each, these are not hard core remote reservoir rock crawling shocks, but that wasn’t our purpose. Our lift is a 3.5 inch lift and we kept the half inch spacers the jeep came with up front. In retrospect, we could have used the same Fox 2.0 shocks but longer. The 4-6” lift versions would give us some extra wheel drop, but the ones we used should hopefully do everything we could want to do in the Ultimate Hunting Vehicle.
Virtually any jeep guru would tell you that a long arm kit is the ultimate foundation for your Wrangler. In my experience, it’s like getting a new and improved vehicle. It is the most important piece of getting your Ultimate Hunting Vehicle’s foundation right. I’m grateful for the excellent advice from multiple parties at Extreme Terrain that helped push me over the edge to commit to this big piece of the project. I highly recommend doing your research and finding a shop with the expertise and integrity to do this right. This is a game changer, and we wouldn’t be able to put “Ultimate” on the build had we cut corners.
Next we had to address steering components. Rolling bigger tires increases your unsprung weight so you really need stronger components. With the lift, you need geometry correction to deal with issues including alignment and shimmy. On my previous JKU I had used another brand drag link flip kit and while the improvement to steering was great, it didn’t last. This time we opted for the much beefier Teraflex HD Frame Brace and Drag Link Flip Kit. Not only is it stronger than the factory drag link, it moves it from under the knuckle to above it. The geometry is better so the steering is better. It creates a different angle yielding better steering/handling characteristics and less bump steer. Your track bar needs to move in the same plane and arc as your drag link, thus the kit. The kit runs $425, but we did run into an issue with it.
The frame brace wouldn’t work due to the fact that my jeep doesn’t have enough lift to accommodate it. The bracket hung too low. I probably needed 4-5” of lift and I have 3.5. Fortunately, Bach Crawlers had a brand new raised track bar bracket sitting on a shelf and we used it. Talk about beefy! My steering is now stout and I don’t have to worry about it breaking (been there, done that on my prior jeep, and the peace of mind I have now is worth a ton).
To finish off the steering upgrades, we selected the top of the line Teraflex Falcon Nexus EF 2.2 steering stabilizer. At $314 it’s not cheap, but it is pretty incredible. A bolt on product, it had three 5-Star reviews on Extreme Terrain. It’s through shaft design doesn’t push the steering left like many single stabilizer products do. It’s adjustable from soft, to medium, to firm to change the characteristics. Like one of the reviewers on the Extreme Terrain website, I like the medium setting for around town and the firm setting for road trips. The fact that I can change the settings by simply reaching down there while standing in front of the jeep with no tools means I can switch it on a whim while pumping gas on the way to my favorite hunting grounds.
Hopefully this story inspires you to start building your own Ultimate Hunting Vehicle. Getting the foundation right is a big BIG deal. Literally everything else we do in the coming months rides on this foundation. I paid $28,500 for my 2012 Rubicon. Part One of the build used $4680 in parts from Extreme Terrain (not much more than a top of the line precision rifle scope). As mentioned, I got a discount on labor from people I know, like and trust. I think they were as excited for me as I was. In fact, they were more excited as they knew better than I did the significance and benefits of what I’d end up with. Where I live, you’d want to budget $2500-3000 for this build and including maybe ten percent for unanticipated issues. All told that puts us at $36,000 (more or less) ticket for a top tier long arm custom Jeep Wrangler, purpose built to be the all around get there and back Ultimate Hunting Vehicle. Not bad, especially considering what I was spending on repairing a lesser four door Wrangler with inferior parts. And I’m not an abuser, just ask Bach Crawlers. My goal here is an essentially bulletproof vehicle without buying an MRAP. In my experience, you’ll spend the money now or later. Better to do it on your time, schedule and budget than $6k a year and broken down at the worst times.
That’s it for Part One, Getting the Foundation Right. You could stop at this point in the build, but we have more plans for this rig to make it even better for its role. Stay tuned for future installment of this story and comment below on what you might do differently.